Today marks the fifth anniversary of The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series’ television debut. If you know me through even the narrowest degree, you will understand that I am obsessed with this cartoon to a fault. I mean that quite literally: this passion stands as a serious flaw in my character. I have no doubt turned more people away from the show through my persistent and earnest promotion than I have won over. That said, I have no regrets about displaying the love I hold for this exceptional program, and I can’t help but think that its inability to amass the following it deserves reflects some interesting changes that fandom culture has gone through in the past few years.
I doubt that anyone who has actually watched this series from beginning to end would hesitate to place it on (or at least near) the same impossible pedestal that Batman: The Animated Series has firmly cemented onto since the early 1990s. With Gargoyles creator Greg Weisman serving as head writer, and acclaimed animator Victor Cook serving as series director, this self-evident quality is hardly surprising. Both shows accomplish different things with differing levels of success, but are each fairly definitive takes on their respective characters. Batman TAS is a series of dark, atmospheric stand-alone stories that revel in the kind of indefinite nostalgia that we usually associate Batman with, whereas Spectacular is a vibrant and personal serial that chronicles the life of Peter Parker with a firm sense of progression. While they have different approaches, they are both perfect examples of distilled adaptations where years of convoluted stories by hundreds of artists and writers are boiled down into their core elements and sequenced in an easily digestible format. In the (unlikely) case that someone went into either of these shows without having any prior exposure to Batman or Spider-Man in any other media, they would go out having a better sense of the characters than many people who have been reading the comics for years do. This is especially true if you grew up reading comics in the 90s.
Despite working on a similar level, The Spectacular Spider-Man does not have even close to the following that shows of comparable quality do, and even has trouble keeping up with the fanbases that its contemporary programs continue to harbour. Whether you’re thinking in terms of kids, fans, or casual viewers, Spectacular had everything going for it when it started: critical acclaim, a prominent Saturday morning timeslot on network television, and it was definitely no slouch in the ratings department, despite an extremely stretched out premiere schedule. Having thirteen episodes debut every other Saturday can’t really hold up to sixty-five episode seasons enveloping children’s attention spans every single day after school, but in today’s economy that’s about the best exposure you can hope for.
Spectacular’s fate was on the wall as soon as the KidsWB block was canned just a few months later. Production nevertheless continued continued as Sony, who developed the series with only minimal oversight from Marvel, had already greenlit a second season. While the episodes debuted in a timely fashion in Canada and other markets, it was anyone’s guess where the second season would wind up in the only market that really mattered: the United States. Over the next few months news surfaced that not only had Marvel bought back the television rights to Spider-Man from Sony, their entire company had been bought by Disney. After months of delay, the second season finally surfaced in the United States on Disney XD, where episodes were burned off with little fanfare in inconsistent timeslots. I do believe in coincidences, but I would not blame anyone for doubting that all of these occurrences were completely unrelated.
Regardless of these warning signs, the fanbase failed to escalate on the level that you would expect a great series with an impending cancellation would. By the time the Spectacular’s demise was clear beyond any doubt, the response pretty much boiled down to outspoken irritation and only went downhill from there. There were a lot of complaints and negativity, but absolutely nothing ever translated into an organized effort to actually save the series. There were a few of the typical hopeless online petitions, and some guy who may or may not be me made a Hitler video on YouTube, but nothing that you would expect from a show of the same calibre as Batman: The Animated Series. Compare this to the enormous, highly visible response that Young Justice, another recent superhero cartoon helmed by Greg Weisman, received when its cancellation was recently confirmed. I would argue that Young Justice is not as good a show as The Spectacular Spider-Man, but the former clearly has something the latter doesn’t.
(Also, please ignore my snarky remarks about Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in that last link. I’ve gotten over it.)
The visual style of Spectacular is usually cited as a major turn-off for people, and unfortunately may be one of the reasons why it is so often overlooked, even to this day. I don’t feel that this is fair, especially given that Batman TAS’s look was equally simplistic and stylized, yet is lauded as an untouchable masterpiece. The character designs by the extremely talented Sean Galloway were used primarily to pull off above average action animation on a less-than-above-average budget, and if you’ve actually watched the show you will know that they look fantastic in motion and lend themselves to exceptional animation quality. The common view seems to be that a higher budget would have allowed more detailed character designs to pull off comparable expression and kinetic action, although I would argue that a higher budget using the same design sensibilities would have yielded something truly outstanding.
Defending the character designs has become a major sticking point for fans of the series, but I believe that there’s a meatier issue lying beneath the surface on why its visibility has such a hard time increasing online. Much of it comes down to timing: Spectacular debuted in 2008, just a year or two before Tumblr led the microblogging revolution which pretty much changed visible online fandom as we know it. If you want to tap the pulse of any popular franchise, you need look no further than the reaction it’s getting on Tumblr. Not only did the ability for fans to endlessly tag and reblog posts and fan creations related to their favourite titles give an entirely new meaning to an active fanbase, it also further cemented a shift towards young women as being the most vocal and visible audience you will find for any fandom. It’s possible that Spectacular could’ve gained a greater foothold here if it had debuted a year or two later, but I would also argue that the series is also a bit incompatible with this audience.
If you check out the “Keep ‘The Spectacular Spider-Man’ Alive!” Facebook group, you’ll see that its membership is almost completely dominated by men in their twenties and thirties: the traditional “comic book fan” demographic. This tends to be typical of comic book shows that follow their source material very faithfully. In the days of Batman: The Animated Series this type of following would carry much more weight, but since this group tends to be much less active on social media, Spectacular’s fanbase is in many ways incompatible with the expectations of fandom in this day and age.
With Young Justice, organized and concerted efforts popped up all over social media to save the show. Infographics made their way around Tumblr informing people how they could support the series, and Twitter campaigns to save the show actually trended nationally. It certainly helps that Young Justice had an enormous social media following from day one, and it’s not a huge surprise given the nature of the series. Like X-Men Evolution or Teen Titans, it is the type of superhero cartoon that proves highly appealing to young women: a team-based show with young characters, many of which are female, that heavily reconfigures the source material and leaves considerable room for things like fanfiction and character shipping. There are dozens of highly active Tumblrs devoted to Young Justice, whereas there is precisely one devoted to The Spectacular Spider-Man, and it’s run by me. While that Tumblr has developed a decent following, it’s hardly made shockwaves which goes to show that you can’t artificially build up a community through social networking, especially when the series itself has already missed the boat. These things need to be organic. As an aside, I would also argue that despite getting similar attention after its cancellation, the recent Green Lantern animated series is largely in the same position as Spectacular, and its campaign has only received the visibility that it has because it has been able to ride off of Young Justice’s coattails.
When you take all of this into consideration, it’s easy to see why The Spectacular Spider-Man continues to get overlooked, but I still wish it had an easier time reaching that same untouchable status that Batman TAS has found in the annals of fandom history. It has been able to hold its own fairly well considering that there is a new animated series (which I will not comment on), new movie series, and even a new fairly questionable reboot in the comic all competing for attention. Not to mention that digital distribution of the series has always been spotty. Season 2 didn’t show up on iTunes until nearly two years after the show ended, and the series still has yet to show up on Crackle, a free streaming service that is owned by Sony. Honestly, now!
Even though The Spectacular Spider-Man is not quite as accessible as it should be, and I suspect that this will only get worse over time, I am thankful that so many have taken the time to check this great series out. If you have for some reason read this entire article without having actually given the series a proper viewing, I strongly suggest that you change that and tell your friends to check it out as well. It’s a harder sell than it should be, but its a show whose legacy really needs to be kept alive.